The concept of freedom of information is perhaps assumed today to have always been a part of the American way of government but that is in actuality fairly far from the truth. The founders of the country, in their July 4, 1776 Declaration of Independence, expressed their concern with what we today call transparency, noting that some governors loyal to King George had moved legislative bodies to places remote from public records for the purpose of, the founders claimed, “fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.” Although transparency was certainly a concern to them, the founders unfortunately did not make any provisions for it when, thirteen years later, they drafted the Constitution of the United States of America.
With no laws on the books for access to “public” information, the decision over whether to release records to members of the public was often simply left in the hands of the presiding clerks at the offices from which such records were requested.
Things became even harder to obtain after World War II with an F.B.I. led by J. Edgar Hoover, a man notorious for keeping secrets, the Cold War, and the air of McCarthyism, with people seeing communists in every corner of society. It would not be until 1966, after some 20 years of journalists working hard to shine light into the workings of government, that Congress would pass the Freedom of Information Act. This act, abbreviated as FOIA, said that all information held by the federal government was to be presumed public if it was not part of a specific exemption which permitted the withholding of information. The FOIA was designed purely to cover the records of the federal government, but with its passage came a momentum for similar laws to be passed in the legislatures of the various American states.
Colorado Open Records Act
Three years later in 1969, inspired by the FOIA, the Colorado legislature passed the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA). In 1972, they passed the Colorado Sunshine Law for open meetings which they further modified in 1996. CORA does much the same as the FOIA, records are presumed to be public unless deemed otherwise by specific exemptions. Notable exemptions include work product, such as notes, research, and preliminary drafts that are part of the bill drafting process, correspondence with constituents “that clearly implies by its nature or content that the constituent expects that it is confidential”, and materials that are parts of ongoing investigations. The Colorado Sunshine Law decrees that any meeting of two or more members of any state public body where public business is discussed should be made open to the public. It also says that email messages discussing pending actions also constitute meetings and are therefor likewise to be publicly available.
Should you wish to access publicly available records in Colorado, there are a few things that will be helpful to know. When requesting a public document, you are not required to state a reason for your request and the custodian of the record is not allowed to ask for one. Any acquired criminal justice records are not allowed to be used for solicitation of business for monetary gain. Offices you make a request of are required by law to respond within three days of the request.
To help make your request successful and give it the best chance of a timely response, there are a few things you should do to help the process. If at all possible, you should always try to make your request in written form. While it is not required by law that requests be in written form, some agencies have enacted stipulations that require it so if you submit your request in this form you will have no trouble complying with specific agency’s regulations. A written request, submitted by letter, email, or fax, can also give you a written record of the request attempt should it be needed. Unless the specific agency in question has information to the contrary in their contact information, all written requests should be in English. Some agencies will wish for particular forms to be used when making a request, especially common in criminal justice records, so you should research the preferred request methods for the agency you wish to obtain records from. It is also helpful in all submissions to clearly state that you are making an open records act request.